The Director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, Mark Leonard, spent a week in Beijing talking to officials and intellectuals and he says many in Beijing are awed by Trumps skill as a strategist and tactician.
They think Mr Trump feels he is presiding over the relative decline of his great nation. It is not that the current order does not benefit the US. The problem is that it benefits others more in relative terms. Current alliances and international institutions are constraining America and facilitating China’s rise.
In Chinese eyes, Mr Trump’s response is a form of “creative destruction”. He is systematically destroying the existing institutions — from the World Trade Organization and the North American Free Trade Agreement to Nato and the Iran nuclear deal — as a first step towards renegotiating the world order on terms more favorable to Washington.
Once the order is destroyed, the Chinese elite believes, Mr Trump will move to stage two: renegotiating America’s relationship with other powers. Because the US is still the most powerful country in the world, it will be able to negotiate with other countries from a position of strength if it deals with them one at a time rather than through multilateral institutions that empower the weak at the expense of the strong.
He is the first president for more than 40 years to bash China on three fronts simultaneously: trade, military and ideology. They describe him as a master tactician, focusing on one issue at a time, and extracting as many concessions as he can. They speak of the skilful way Mr Trump has treated President Xi Jinping. “Look at how he handled North Korea,” one says. “He got Xi Jinping to agree to UN sanctions [half a dozen] times, creating an economic stranglehold on the country. China almost turned North Korea into a sworn enemy of the country.” But they also see him as a strategist, willing to declare a truce in each area when there are no more concessions to be had, and then start again with a new front.
China’s elite feel that Mr Xi has over-reached and worry that it was a mistake simultaneously to antagonize the US economically and militarily in the South China Sea. They advocate economic concessions and a pullback from the aggressive tactics that have characterized China’s recent foreign policy.”
If these are truly the generally held views of the Chinese elite, which is likely the case, Xi’s reputation has already been significantly damaged.